How to Lose Friends and Alienate People 2: Tackling anti-Semitism in the Short Term

We have a tendency to cast the spectre of anti-Semitism as a vast, amorphous thing that can never be quantified.

This means not distinguishing between an unpleasant letter to the editor, a school-yard taunt, an ill-conceived play;  and expulsions, pogroms, and gas chambers. These are all conflated.

for some, they might exist on a continuum, but most of the time proponents of the amorphous school of understanding anti-Semitism prefer not to delve into proximate and ultimate causes.

Instead, the preference is to assign an almost divine provenance to the malign intent of others – something which not only cannot be understood within the normal human realms of social inquiry, but indeed must be elevated above it as a particularly heinous crime, the investigation of which is almost sacrilege.

Clearly, I do not support this view.

Indeed, I credit this view with making Jews vulnerable to the vagaries of the social tides – the ebb and flow of welcome and hatred.

It most certainly removes from Jews any sense of agency – any notion that they are masters of their own destiny, that they can play a role in ensuring not only their own welfare, but the welfare of future generations.

Sometimes things do go really really wrong – and quite quickly.

When National Socialists take power and start implementing laws that harm Jews, there’s not much to be done in the way of PR or strategic planning, beyond finding somewhere else to go. Quickly.

When Poles/Ukranians/Croats/Whoever  gleefully join the National Socialists  in trying to purge their countries of Jews, no amount of interfaith dialogue or glad-handing is going to help.

Can you imagine the sort of high-level advocacy we currently conduct with Australian politicians, happening in war time Poland? Of course not. Such advocacy can only work in an environment that is not completely hostile to the Jewish population.

So make no mistake: we are not living in a place whose general population hates us.

As I’ve been saying: for the moment, most Australians do not spend much time thinking about us at all. And that is a good thing.

We change that when our leaders make ill-advised media appearances, and also, when certain rogue Jewish elements decide that the path to self-aggrandisement is paved with painting fellow Jews as desperately misguided at best, and nefarious actors at worst.

Our leaders’ behaviour  is, in theory, the simplest part of the equation to remedy. Trying to control individual voices speaking out against the community is another matter entirely, and will be examined in the next post.

This post will focus on our leaders and spokespeople.

Firstly, they need to distinguish between the different challenges that face Jewish Australia regarding anti-Semitism and our relations with wider society:

1) Violent anti-Semitism (see Menachem Vorchheimer). When someone is physically abused, the community owes the victim its complete support (legal, financial, etc…). Without this, the rest of our rhetoric rings hollow. Part of this support entails letting the police do their job in investigating a violent crime. Should that investigation become problematic for whatever reason, the community is entitled to seek redress.

If the incident is not part of a wider campaign, our leadership must avoid the temptation of lobbying state government, or making vitriolic forays into the media.

We need to take a leaf from Vic Alhadeff’s book. Because he holds his fire most of the time, when he does speak to the media, it carries real weight. The way he speaks is just as important. He avoids hyperbole, hectoring, and adversarial language wherever possible. He has built up credibility with journalists, who in turn present him well in their stories.

While Alhadeff’s most recent media foray regarding anti-Semitism was not in relation to a violent event, it was nevertheless about a grave libel perpetrated against all Jews in an HSC religious studies text. That text had the power to generate serious anti-Jewish feeling, and Alhadeff’s actions – leading to the text’s removal from the syllabus – were crucial.

2) “Artistic” anti-Semitism is going to be around for a while and we need to know how to manage it. For some reason, a certain type of artist identifies closely with the stream of the Left that has painted Jews as “part of the problem” – whether that problem is Israel, capitalism, or a high profile in the US.

The wonderful thing about these groups is that they do not mount mainstream productions: their audiences are tiny, and they are almost always playing to their friends and family. The only other attendees will already be of like mind. In short, no undecided person is going to be convinced of Jewish perfidy by such performances.

Unless…
Our spokespeople find out about it and make a giant fuss, attracting media (that would never otherwise have been at the show) and mainstream attention, all the while appearing to be enemies of free speech.

BUT…
We can actually benefit from such performances.

As I’ve written previously, it is important to know what the artistic/academic circles are thinking, should such ideas cross over into the mainstream. What unpleasant productions allow, is for us to view the least flattering portraits of ourselves, to examine those elements that might be selected for a mainstream airing, and to prepare for such an eventuality.

3) The Left is not monolithic. It comprises both reasonable people, interested in things like perspective and proportion. There is also the extreme fringe that is highly problematic.

Their ability to garner attention for anti-Zionist campaigns is based on the cyclical nature of the news. When their turn comes around to paint Jews/Zionists/Israelis as genocidal maniacs, there is ONLY one response that will not damage us.

If we debate them on their own turf – answering the straw-man questions they love to construct – we will ALWAYS seem defensive and on the back foot. We also give their arguments credence.

We must not do this.

Ever!

Instead, our best bet is to ignore the charges they lay. The details of such charges are guaranteed not to stick in the heads of ordinary Australians who don’t care all that much about the Middle East.

Similarly any details we would use trying to counter them in the school-debating style would not be retained either. No one cares, beyond the protagonists.

What matters – and what IS retained, is tone.

As I wrote earlier, Liam Getreu’s piece is an almost ideal example of how to set the tone of the “Reasonable Jew.”

The “Reasonable Jew” is the person an ordinary Australian would rather live next door to/ have a beer with/have as a mate, than some frothing leftist.

The “Reasonable Jew” understands that admitting his own side isn’t perfect is both telling the truth about the situation, while massively boosting his/her credibility.

The “Reasonable Jew” understands that NOT demonising the Palestinians is actually precisely the thing that will make his/her other statements regarding Israel/Palestine believable.

But most importantly, the “Reasonable Jew” understands that NOTHING he writes in an Australian paper or says on air is ever going to affect the conflict itself.

The “Reasonable Jew” knows that his/her power ONLY lies in shaping society’s views of Australian Jews, and that this is a great responsibility.

4) We must think laterally when seeking allies.

It’s easy to become distracted, and perhaps seduced by the illusion that in the debates over Israel/Palestine, we are somehow fighting for Israel.

We are not.

Israeli soldiers and reservists fight for Israel.

That we do not risk our lives in our beloved country’s defence can perhaps, occasionally, drive us to a certain zealotry in our debating styles.

We might even be deluded into thinking that the “hard men” who berate readers and audiences in wider Australia are brave champions of Israel.

They are not.

They are risking nothing except our community’s social capital within wider society.

5) The new media have taken many of leaders by surprise and they struggle to navigate the exponential nature of the new modes of information.

But these new fora actually provide us with clues as to those most likely to act in a way that might damage our community.

What we see, time and again, are angry comments that are almost cut and pasted in their sameness, that spout the usual far-leftist tropes. We see very few Arab or Muslim names, however.

Indeed, at the interfaith conference I attended a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to talk to a young woman from the Islamic roof body. She detailed a number of grievances with the Herald Sun and it’s demonisation of Muslims. I laughed and told her how many Jews feel just that way about The Age.

The true threats to the Islamic community come not from Zionists, but from the far-right.

Similarly, the people who dehumanise Jews most in the media are not Arabs/Muslims, but people of the far left.

Why wouldn’t Jewish organisations approach their Islamic counterparts to form a united front condemning any such dehumanisation of either party? Indeed the Jews might be vocal on behalf of the Muslims, and vice versa.

This would have a number of positive effects:

Firstly, whenever someone else, with supposed diametrically opposed interests, argues on your behalf, their words carry far more weight than if you defended only your own interests.

Secondly, Jews and Muslims working together is always a good look – for both parties. It humanises us, shows that we are being peaceful.. It is a powerful demonstration that we are not interested in importing ethnic strife, but in fostering dialogue.

Thirdly, this really would be a man bites dog story! The sheer novelty of Jews and Muslims doing each other’s PR would guarantee prominent placement in the media, ensuring our messages were heard, and not buried.

This could only work for a subset of issues, of course. Jews will never advocate for the return of Palestinian refugees to within the Green Line, and Muslims are unlikely to try to defend the settlers.

What I’m proposing is a set of circumstances, in which each group defends the other against unfair characterisation and/or racism, whenever that does not directly involve Israel/Palestine.

These are only a handful of possible courses of action, that can be taken immediately to ameliorate our current situation.

Far more challenging – and potentially rewarding will be some of the long term strategies that I will write about in the next post.

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9 Responses to “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People 2: Tackling anti-Semitism in the Short Term”

  1. Please define “we”.

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  2. senselessjew says:

    Dear Alex

    I haven’t been participating in this forum for a while, but I have to respond to this series of posts because, in my view, they absolutely epitomise what is wrong with the approach being pushed here.

    Firstly, you say we have agency. I agree. But Dvir is right – you are arguing that much antisemitism is more or less the result of activities of the community leadership that you do not like. You certainly seem to be saying they cause it. Perhaps not Nazism, but much antisemitism short of that. Is that really what you want to say? Because if it is, then I think you’re consistent, unbrindled, and often unfair hatred of that leadership has made you lose all perspective. “Do what I say or antisemitism is you fault!”

    The community can affect antisemitism – but not the way you are suggesting – by being so uncontroversial that no one can object to anything it says. It can do so by being prominent against racism generally in society, by supporting multiculturalism, by gaining support from other communal groups, – but also by reminding people why antisemitism is objectionable and marginalised in our society when it pops up, and fighting the ideas associated with contemporary antisemitic trends.

    I understand your point about letting marginal material like the play you saw go through to the keeper. But surely if you ignore a lot of stuff like that, you are likely to see more and more of it. After all, the people who write such things want to create a stir. They will keep putting out more and more such material – and try and be more and more “out there” t create a stir. Eventually it will have cultural effects on the overall situation of the community. Antisemitic materal, allowed to go unchallenged, create a new normal. We need to reinforce the current norms. Keeping quiet will not do so.

    Nor can you counter it through your idea of Jews being so nice and uncontroversial that such material loses it resonance. The power of antisemitic beliefs are not turned aside so easily. If you like, one can cite lots of examples from history where Jewish communities were as assimilationist, quiet and conformist as possible – yet still faced rising antisemitism. For one thing, as you pointed out, a Jewish individual wrote that particular play. There are a lot of Jews determined to show their artistic and universalistic credentials – their ‘bravery” – through material like this. Surely it will have effects long term – even if we absolutely never say anything about it. For instance, if lots of plays, books, TV shows, perhaps newspaper articles say, as yours did, that Jews are liars, do you really believe that no one in the wider community will pick up and adopt that belief who otherwise would not?

    At some point, surely it has to be challenged.

    The same goes for never challenging the extreme anti-Israel claims of the far left. It they say over and over again that Israel is a an Apartheid Nazi state, and anyone who supports it is a racist at best, a supporter of mass murder more likely, and no one argues with them, this view will spread. And the situation of the Jewish community will worsen, since most of us are in the category of supporting Israel. For example, Italy has witnessed boycotts of Jewish shops by anti-Israel far-left unions. Do you really think such things could not happen here if we let extreme anti-Israel activism go completely unchallenged or undebated?

    That’s leaving aside the conspiracy theories about Jewish control of finance and the media on behalf of Israel that are becoming increasingly common on the anti-Israel left. Should we just ignore those too for fear of feeding such beliefs?

    Secondly, I know you will deny it vehemently, but I stlll see your basic approach as amounting in practice to “Sha, stil!” You don’t say we should shut up completely. Instead you say we should say absolutely nothing anyone would disagree with. You can call it a clever strategy of engagment, a new kind of activism all you want. It’s not. It’s a form of shutting up about anything that matters to avoid drawing any negative attention.

    In fact, considering that you go on about Jewish “agency” at length, I can think of few ideas more calculated to curtail that agency that this one. To fight antisemitism, we must use our “agency” to avoid saying much of anyhing in the political debates that matter to the community – such as Israel, the Holocaust, and antisemitic art. According to you, our “agency” consists of being inoffensive to avoid provoking antisemitism. It seems to me the “agency” in that scenario belongs to the antsemites or potential antisemites.

    We should use our agency to try to win these debates over the long term, while also fighting to marginalise antisemitism.

    I am happy to debate and hear ideas about how to win these debates and avoid some of the genuine mistakes pointed out here. But your idea seems to be to largely abandon those debates. I don’t buy your argument that no one cares or is convinced in those debates. That’s not my experience. You cannot affect the diehard activists, but you can affect the intellectual elites – politicians, journalists, academics, writers, etc. – who are not firmly commited or educated about the Middle East, and this is in fact the majority. And through them, though it is a slow gradual process, you can affect the perceptions and prejudices of the population as a whole.

    I do like your idea about sharing the fight against extremism with Muslime groups. However, I think you will find it more difficult to implement than your realise. From what I understand, communal leadership of many of the various Muslims communities (there really isn’t just one comparable to the Jewish community) is even more problematic, unrepresentative and often in conflict than ours is. Most of those would find it politically hard to cooperate with Jews even on very anodyne issues. Yes, you probably could get some to protest antisemitism in the abstract, or something really serious like a Synagogue bombing – but getting agreement on any specifics about what consitutes antisemitism and whether Jews have any real problem with it would likely be impossible. That’s not to say building cooperation with specific Muslim individuals and groups is not a good thing. But we should be realistic as to how important a role something like that can play in our public relations strategy.

    Senseless Jew

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    • TheSadducee says:

      senselessjew

      I can’t respond for SJ but I can respond with my own thoughts on your comment (forgive the length).

      Community leadership is not causing anti-semitism or even contributing to it. They are however annoying people with their excesses which enables anti-semites to point at these excesses and utilise them for their own ends thereby blending anti-semitism with genuine criticism of excesses. This leads to what I consider a soft prejudice emerging in the minds of average folks i.e. they see Jewish leaders being too fussy/sensitive etc. I don’t believe that this soft prejudice necessarily moves to hard prejudice (eg. anti-semitism, neo-Nazism) – (eg. I think of Red Symons’ joke on the radio as an example of soft prejudice).

      SJ is not calling for community leadership to say nothing or not to rock the boat – they are calling for considered responses to serious topics eg. Alhadeff’s serious response to the textbooks rather than the response to the Seven Children Play (where the spokesperson if I recall correctly, admitted that they hadn’t even read the play they were criticising!).

      Interestingly, you consider that if material is permitted to be aired which contains anti-semitic ideas/tropes and not confronted then this can create prejudice. But as I noted above, can’t over reaction to trivial issues do the same? There is a huge degree of difference in the importance of the textbook case and a third rate mediocre local-level play. Pointing out the problems of one which can effect general education is a serious issue – activism against a local play with 10 audience members is trivial.

      Similarly, SJ strikes me as suggesting that the responses be considered – not hairsplitting and special pleading over minutiae and/or emotive and reactionary. This alienates average people who frankly aren’t interested in the fine details.

      As to anti-Israel activism. The fact remains that the occupation is the source of legitimate criticism regardless of whether the critic is from the left or right. The point is that, as you say, most Jews support Israel, which enables this criticism to be applied to them as part of a criticism.

      Extreme criticism and activism which is outside of reasonable bounds should be combatted – only if it is going to have a demonstrable impact beyond its own choir. The fact is that many of the extremists are peddling to their own people and aren’t interested in legitimate debate/discussion.

      You marginalise them by acknowleding the problems (eg. the occupation – there are commenters here who wont even acknowledge it) and discussing rationally without a “what about the other side” tit for tat tally – if they are ranting and throwing around wild accusations and refusing to acknowledge any criticism then they will turn off the average person – people don’t like fanatics/ideologues and they certainly don’t buy into their ideas. Storming a hotel lobby and fighting with the police isn’t going to win adherents to your cause, nor is engaging in endless online debates arguing the minutiae of the conflict with extremists on the Guardian etc.

      Engaging the broader community in discussion groups etc will possibly change local opinions – it might not work with Muslims, but certainly other faith/community groups might be convinced, even if it doesn’t it removes social barriers – people don’t see Jews as the other, but rather as members of their community which makes it hard to maintain soft prejudice.

      I agree with you with needing to get intellectual elites on side to win the war on ideas. But this is not done by threatening and hectoring them constantly which is the way much of the community leadership treats them.

      Considerate and intelligent engagement is the way to do it. Ostracising our Jewish brothers and sisters who voice unfavourable opinions is also not the way – but critically engaging with them is. It removes their argument of victimhood and/or isolation, non-representation. Unfortunately much of our community leadership expects members to tow the line and considers it better to have them outside the pale rather than engage their positions.

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  3. Mohan says:

    I have to disagree with Saducee on one point – debate. Most “extremists” are looking for debate. There have been a few debates particularly between Ted lapkin and Michael Shaik, there was the Melbourne University debate from which Dvir Abramovich walked away without answering questions, ther was the Monash University debate, there was discussion following the staging of Sven Jewish Children in Melbourne, leftist magazines publish letters from Zionists and allow debates.

    If the supporters of Israel have confidence in their beliefs, they should invite more debates – however spirited – with supporters of Palestine.

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  4. TheSadducee says:

    Mohan

    I would suggest that the debate you are referring to is not actually debate but rather the provision of a platform which enables them to take the opportunity to grandstand and lecture their ideological opponents.

    Additionally to that, extremely ideological and/or partisan audiences will not contribute to an atmosphere of tolerant, respectful and informed dialogue – often the questions in these circumstances are deliberately framed to not genuinely enquire but rather hector the individual – these questions often end up as soundbytes and/or prepared talking points.

    Your last comment strikes me as if you see the conflict as a clear dichotomy – Israel v Palestine.

    I prefer to take the position that I can support both sides in the conflict and criticise the failings of both because that is the best way forward. It should not be a winner takes all scenario because at the moment that approach is making all participants losers.

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  5. Mohan says:

    Thank you saducee

    You canot support either side but will you remain silent at expanding settlements, the blockade of Gaza, the violence of armed settlers and exclusive roads. The “dictotomy” is not in our imagination, it is there in the real world. If I see a grown up person attack a child, I could choose to remain “neutral”.
    Grand standing etc is often by the likes of Ted Lapkin et al. Any way if you hear two spirited defences, you are likely to know who is reight.

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    • Morry says:

      Mohan, I have noticed a growing violence amongst settlers that I deplore, and am very vocal about. I hope that every one who commits such acts of violence, even if it is against property, and no one is injured or killed, is caught and held accountable.

      My problem, though, Mohan, is that this is all you see, or the “exclusive roads”, without sparing a single thought for why they may be necessary. In today’s news alone, Meir Chai, a gentle, 45 year old father of 7 was shot driving along Route 57, whilst the El Aksa Brigades planted a bomb on Route 443, designed to take out some 20 cars … thankfully it failed.

      The fact that you can totally ignore these random attacks against peaceful innocents, and place them nowhere in your narrative, troubles me immensely. It is why I don’t bother to discuss these things with you, because you are so clearly impervious to anything I might say, so why waste my breath. I’m far better off discussing with somebody who disagrees with me, but is as open to adjusting their worldview as am I.

      I hope that answers your query as to why there is so little debate in certain circles.

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  6. TheSadducee says:

    Mohan

    I’m not sure if you read my response or not – I prefer to take the position that both sides can be supported and criticised where appropriate.

    And I certainly wouldn’t attribute to me a silence about the occupation – I have argued with other contributors here about the topic. As to Gaza, the settlers and roads – I decry these too as excessive.

    But I pose the question to you – how does Israel, or diaspora Jews discuss the conflict in good faith with reactionary and religious extremists from Hamas whose own organisation Charter contains clearly anti-semitic and/or racist and/or extremist material?

    I assume your sympathetic to a left-wing identity. If you are, what staggers me is that you support a cause which would be totally inimical to your values and your own way of life. The longer I read your posts and interact with you the more I think that your problem isn’t with Israel per se but rather with Jews.

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